The 1st of October 1996 was the day that an unknown scholarly-looking Frenchman officially took over as the new manager of my beloved football club and started a transformation that would place the club at a level never before imagined. Recognising that things had gone badly stale since the glory days of the George Graham title triumphs in 89 and 91, the club had attempted to kickstart a transformation the previous season with the appointment of Bruce Rioch in place of the disgraced Graham, but more crucially through the acquisition of the continentally-cultured David Platt and the sublimely skilled Dennis Bergkamp. However it wasn’t until the largely unknown Frenchman took over that things started to gather pace.
It is impossible to look at Arsene Wenger’s tenure at Arsenal without dividing it into two distinct halves, segmented by the move to Emirates Stadium. The first 10 years reaped three league titles and four FA Cups, two of each as double winning seasons, and a phenomenal season in which the team went unbeaten for an entire league campaign. The style and quality of the football on display was beyond belief, the team played with a swagger and flair that echoed the great sides of football history.
However, for all their domestic success, the manager and squad were never able to replicate this on the European stage; the elimination to Chelsea in the quarter finals of the 2004 Champions League, when the competition was there for the taking, was perhaps the biggest failing; but also hinted at a flaw in the manager’s football philosophy and tactical approach.
Realising the commercial constraints of the club’s spiritual home of Highbury and perhaps mindful of the way in which their main rivals Manchester United were converting their on-field success into massive commercial growth; the club recognised the need for a new home that would allow them to generate the revenues required to compete with the elite (read rich) clubs of European football. Initially David Dean wanted the club to rent Wembley in a deal similar to that which West Ham have recently cemented for use of the Olympic Stadium; but it was eventually decided that due to the enormous income generation possibilities, the only way forward was to build their own new stadium.
The financial impact of this decision on the team was almost instantaneous, with investment in the squad limited and the all-too-swift break-up of the Invincibles starting with the departure of skipper and leader Patrick Viera. At the same time the arrival of Roman Abramovich and his seemingly limitless financial resources over in West London would change football in this country forever.
Performance on the field deteriorated just as quickly with the team finishing a distant 12 points behind Mourinho’s Chelsea in 2004/05 and then just scraping into the top four on the final day of the 2005/06 League season; thanks in no small part to Tottenham’s capitulation at West Ham, when half the team was struck down by food poisoning. Although the team did reach its one and only Champions League Final this was as much a result of record-breaking performances of a somewhat cobbled together back four as the flair and goals of Thierry Henry and co. While Wenger and the team can consider themselves unlucky to have lost the final, it did very much bring to an end the first half of the manager’s reign.
The move to Emirates Stadium was sold to the fans on the basis that it would allow the club to compete with the superpowers of European football; yet the cost of building the state-of-the-art new home inevitably had an impact on the financial resources available to the manager at a time when Manchester United’s revenues continued to grow, Chelsea continued to spend and the Abu Dhabi takeover of Manchester City catapulted them to top of the Premier League rich list.
In many ways it is a notable achievement that Wenger managed to keep Arsenal relatively competitive during this time, at least in terms of perennial qualification for the Champions League, despite the clear financial disadvantage; an achievement that perhaps doesn’t garner the credit that it deserves.
Yet there is increasing frustration and unrest among the Arsenal fanbase, with a feeling that as the debts have been cleared, the manager, perhaps under instruction by the board, is steadfastly reluctant to use all the available financial resources in pursuit of the on-field success, most specifically in truly challenging for the Premier League or Champions League titles, that the supporters truly crave. The sense is very much that capital growth of the asset that is the club is more important than trophies.
This is very much the crux of how the second half of Wenger’s reign at the club will be seen; if you are in the camp that truly believes that the manager is operating under imposed financial restraints from the majority shareholder; then occasional domestic cup success and continuing to qualify for the Champions League can be seen as par for the course. However if you are amongst the increasing proportion who believe that the manager is stubbornly denying himself the chance to compete for the top prizes through a misguided belief in doing things ‘his way’ then you are likely to have a different attitude about whether he should continue beyond his 20th year.
Based on what he brought to the club during the first ten years, I would love to see Arsene’s dedication, hard work and commitment to the club that he clearly loves rewarded with a return to a position at the top of the Premier League and maybe even a chance of the European glory that has so far evaded him. However as something of a pragmatist, I also fear that, as pointed out in this piece I posted 6 months ago https://football-nerd.org/2016/04/13/has-the-modern-game-left-arsene-wenger-behind/ the familiar issues with regard to the mentality of the team, the types of players that are in it, the tactical set-up, attacking inefficiency and the lack of even the most basic defensive organisation; might suggest that for Arsenal to truly compete again will require a change in approach from the ownership of the club and possibly even a change in manager.